Canada closes embassy in Iran, expels Iranian diplomats

Canada has suspended diplomatic relations with Iran and is expelling Iranian diplomats from Canada, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird announced in a statement today.

Speaking to reporters in Russia, where he's attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-Operation summit, Baird said the government is formally listing Iran today as a state sponsor of terrorism under the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act.

That will theoretically allow Canadians affected by terrorism supported by the Iranian regime to sue.

Later in the day, Baird added Syria to the list of terror-sponsoring states.

“Canada is committed to fighting global terrorism and to holding perpetrators of terrorism — and those who provide them support — accountable for their actions,” Baird said following a news release that officially added Syria to the list.

“Building resilience against terrorism is a priority for our government, and respect for the rule of law prevails in a resilient society,” added Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.

Earlier Friday, Baird denounced Iran in the strongest possible terms.

"Iran is among the world's worst violators of human rights. It shelters and materially supports terrorist groups," Baird said in a news release announcing the formal terror listing, adding: "Unequivocally, we have no information about a military strike on Iran."

Baird said Canada has closed its embassy in Iran, effective immediately, and declared personae non gratae all remaining Iranian diplomats in Canada. Those diplomats must leave within five days. All Canadian diplomats have already left Iran.

"Canada’s position on the regime in Iran is well known. Canada views the government of Iran as the most significant threat to global peace and security in the world today," he said in the statement.

The statement cited Iran's support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, its failure to comply with UN resolutions on its nuclear program and its threats against Israel.

It also makes reference to Iran's "blatant disregard" of the Vienna Convention that guarantees the protection of diplomatic personnel.

Last November, Iranian students stormed the British Embassy in Tehran and ransacked its offices. Britain's Foreign Office summoned an Iranian diplomat in London amid complaints that Iran failed to provide proper security to the embassy and didn't do enough in response to the attack.

Netanyahu congratulates Canada

Iran hasn't had a full ambassador in Canada since 2007, following a breakdown in relations after Iranian-Canadian photographer Zahra Kazemi was tortured and killed in Iran in 2003.

The Department of Foreign Affairs is asking Canadians in need of assistance in Iran to contact the embassy in Ankara, Turkey. Anyone who needs urgent assistance should call the department's emergency line at 613-996-8885 or send an email to sos@international.gc.ca.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement congratulating Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the move, calling it a courageous act of leadership.

"The determination which Canada demonstrates is extremely important so that the Iranians understand that they cannot continue in their race to achieve nuclear weapons. This practical step must serve as an example to the international community [as regards to] moral standards and international responsibility," Netanyahu said.

Former diplomat Ken Taylor, who served as Canada's ambassador in Tehran during the 1979 Iranian revolution, says having a presence on the ground in a country is important. If the country's government won't interact, he said, there's still intelligence to gather.

"As a diplomat, I think you never give up. Of course, if it's a breach of diplomatic protocol, if in fact your diplomats are threatened, if in fact a country's conduct is not acceptable, this may proceed from persona non grata to the closing of the embassy," Taylor said.

"Obviously, though, the Canadian government is sending a message. Whether or not this is the best means to send a message is of course up to the government's cabinet. It's more than just a practical or technical severance of the relationship," he said.

'Hostile decision'

A spokesman for Iran's Foreign Ministry, Ramin Mehmanparast, called Canada's decision "hasty and extreme" and said Iran would soon respond, the semi-official Fars news agency reported.

On Friday, people lined up outside the mission, waiting to deal with passport and other issues. Eventually, someone posted a sign on the door in Persian saying the embassy is closed.

"Because of the hostile decision by the government of Canada, the embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Ottawa is closed and has no choice but to stop providing any consular services for its dear citizens."

One man said he's been in Canada for 25 years but was looking forward to taking his children to see where he had grown up. With the embassy closed, it will be harder to arrange for the papers needed to travel.

"It's not fair. I mean, that's not the way to do it. They should have an office — I don't know how it will solve anyone's problem," Arman Mirshahi said.

"Don't you think there's other way to fight those [diplomatic battles], other than creating problems for me?"

A spokeswoman for a pro-democracy group said they welcome the decision by Baird and that it shows Iranians that Canada stands with them.

"This regime has been killing, executing, torturing, over hundreds and thousands of people, both students, intelligence and other members of [the] community in the country and abroad. It's terrorism. It does not stay in the country — Iran only — but also it's been exported to other countries," said Vahideh Khorram-Roudi of the Iran Democratic Association.

Khorram-Roudi said the regime has threatened her and other members of the group through threats to their family members still in Iran.

Activists called for embassy closure

Pro-democracy activists in Canada renewed calls over the summer for the embassy in Ottawa to be closed.

The calls were sparked by a July news report that said Iran's cultural counsellor in Ottawa, Hamid Mohammadi, suggested Iranian expatriates should be nurtured to be of service to Iran.

Baird issued a warning on July 13, saying the Iranian government has no right to interfere with Canadians who left Iran to build a better life.

"Obviously we're concerned by some of the reports that we've heard," Baird said.

"It is completely inconsistent with any diplomatic mission for the Iranian mission in Ottawa to interfere in the liberties that [Iranian-Canadians] enjoy in Canada. Any police organization will certainly take a look at any serious allegations that are raised in terms of their conduct.

"And obviously my department will watch very closely and will be pleased to hear any representations on anything that the embassy has done that is inconsistent with their function as diplomats in Ottawa."

One of the most prominent voices calling for the closure was Nazanin Afshin-Jam, a human rights activist and the wife of Canadian Defence Minister Peter MacKay.

Afshin-Jam's father was imprisoned and tortured in Iran before the family fled, eventually ending up in Vancouver.

With a file from The Canadian Press